AMMAN, Jordan — When I was a student at the old Institute for Pastoral Liturgical Ministries operated by the Archdiocese of Detroit, one priest who taught a class looked askance at the practice of some Catholics to memorize the Mass schedules of nearby churches, then drive to each church and stay for the priest’s words of institution during the Eucharistic Prayer, at which point the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then scoot off to the next church to do the same, and repeat the process all Sunday. He dismissed their staying only for what he called “the gaze that saves.”
I hadn’t thought about that in years and years until I was on my way to Jordan to participate in a tour of holy and sacred biblical sites in the nation. Another trip participant had said before he left, “I’ll get to celebrate Easter twice this year!” This year, Eastern Catholic churches and churches in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem — which includes Jordan — began celebrating Easter with the Orthodox, according to the Julian calendar.
I could see the participant’s point if one were ordained clergy or a liturgical minister who got the chance to “go civilian” and take in Easter as a member of the assembly. But I had argued to myself, wasn’t the 8 a.m. Mass I went to on Easter Sunday enough? And that reminded me of a second priest whose name I can’t remember who once said, “Every Sunday isn’t a ‘little Easter.’ Easter is a big Sunday!”
But our schedule dictated a visit to a Melkite Catholic church in Amman, Jordan’s capital and largest city, for the Easter Vigil. So I kept my consternation to myself and hopped in the van with everyone else.
The church was packed. My estimate is that the small church, even with extra chairs along the sides and in the front, held a standing-room-only crowd of 350.
I had gone to a Melkite Divine Liturgy last June while on assignment for Catholic News Service, but hardly an Easter Vigil. It was comforting to hear the melody of the Exultet, albeit in Arabic. I started in the back of the church, then worked my way to a comfortable leaning position against a side wall of the church halfway in so I could take better photos. After about 10 minutes, one of the clerics invited me and several of my tour companions to take seats in the front. What great luck!
We were there another 10 minutes or so when a representative of the Jordan Tourism Board whispered to us that we all had to leave. What? Why? What had we done? Had we violated some protocol — maybe using flash photography? If so, why were we invited to sit in front in the first place? I definitely had more questions than answers.
It turns out we were in the wrong church!
This had been a Latin-rite church where the van driver had taken us. That could account for the Exultet.
The Melkite Church of Sts. Peter and Paul was three minutes away by car. We got there late as well, it goes without saying. The church was also standing-room only, but far smaller than our first church that night; I estimate fewer than 100 were there, including us.
It was comforting, though, to see that the small-C catholic part of the Catholic Church held true regardless of rite: People don’t like to sit in the front pew! Here, too, there were empty seats right up front, and we were guided to them.
A Melkite liturgy is almost entirely sung and is quite dynamic: There is always motion or something going on, sometimes more than one thing at the same time. Also celebrated entirely in Arabic except for the Kyrie I heard midway through, this liturgy was beautiful in its own way. Latin-rite Catholics owe it to themselves to take in a Divine Liturgy at least once in their life.
If you ask me if I have any regrets, I’d say my only regret is not being able to take part in a Sunday morning Chaldean-rite Easter Mass in Amman.
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I will blog from time to time about things I’ve encountered on my Jordan journey. Also, look me up on Twitter at @MeMarkPattison for Jordan-related tweets. Others on this tour will use the same Hashtags: #holyjordan.